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Francis, the Washington Post, and Me Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Saturday, 19 October 2013

Bob Royal takes todays slot, normally reserved for David Warren. Were sad to report that Mr. Warrens mother passed away this week.The Catholic Thing family extends our deepest sympathies to David and the Warren family. May her gentle soul rest in the bosom of our Lord, Jesus Christ.  the editors 

This past week, The Washington Post ran a front-page story on conservatives publicly “criticizing the pope” in which I was “quoted” – in the Pickwickian sense. You can’t be surprised when your words are distorted by the press, taken out of context, even made to do backflips into positions opposite to the ones you hold, especially when it comes to Catholicism. But this experience was something new for me.

Since the article appeared, some friends thanked me. Others have written me – or written articles themselves – chiding me for thinking it’s my job to police the pope’s statements. For the record, it’s never even crossed my mind. I’m amazed at the new spirit of mercy and the ability to touch people Francis has brought to the whole world. He may just be the special man needed to convey the richness of the Faith, as developed in modern terms by his two great predecessors, to Catholics in the pews, fallen away Catholics and non-Catholics outside, and the poor and marginalized around the world.

So, oddly, because of the hash the reporter made of the whole thing, I find myself partly agreeing with some critics of what “I” said, and fencing a little with friends who think they agree with “me.” That doesn’t happen every day. But it happens – to the pope, clearly, as well – when you’re dealing with journalists who think in partisan categories. 

There’s little serious professionalism in religion reporting – obviously not only at the Post. For example: after the piece appeared, I tried to get the reporter to understand that, among other vagaries, she was using traditional and traditionalist as identical. It’s like a political reporter, I told her, not knowing the difference between a Republican and a Libertarian. I thought this humble comparison, drawn from the simple world of Washington front-page news, might cause a light bulb to go on.

It didn’t. Differences between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, as we know, matter. Orthodox, conservative, and reform Jewish differences matter. But when it comes to Catholicism, everything that’s outside what the average secular liberal is interested in is just “getting into the weeds.”

Besides a lack of interest in the content of Catholicism, there’s a strange sense of proportion operative. It’s too difficult to reproduce the whole episode here, but if you read the story, it brings in a Catholic counselor who had a client who described himself as a “Pope Francis-Nancy Pelosi Catholic.” Now, if this had been reported to underline the absurd conclusions some people have drawn from a couple of ambiguous remarks by Pope Francis, it might actually have news value. As it is, it gives the impression that this impossible politico-religious hybrid is now a prominent part of the Church. 


A much bigger problem lies at the nexus of ignorance and prejudice. In that realm, there are only sides and conflicts – sometimes deliberately exacerbated by the press. To see things as partly this and partly that, as a process in which elements are developing, as requiring a supple understanding of matters that don’t lend themselves to Left and Right, sheep and goats, is dismissed as just the obsession of specialists. And ignored in the reporting.

In this vein, the most troubling misrepresentation lies on either side of an ellipsis. At one point, we talked about how there have been good and bad popes. I even joked that Benedict XVI, careful theologian that he is, refrained from saying that the Holy Spirit wholly dictates the choice, since we had the Borgias, etc.

“There are better and worse popes and God allows them.” Four dots later I’m portrayed as saying that “I’m getting used to it,” implying that I’m getting used to having a “bad” pope. What came in between, and throughout the interview, but left off the page, was my balanced account of Pope Francis to date: an extraordinary man who has a rare gift for touching people. But in the heat of the moment, when he’s thinking on his feet, occasionally formulates things poorly. He’s said as much himself. I was “getting used to” a great pope who has a tendency to leave some things unclear – the root of the recent controversies.

The Post reporter claimed – and still does – that she doesn’t understand my point since I “blamed” the pope for the misunderstandings that have arisen.

What I really said is that “conservatives,” loyal and respectful as we are whoever is pope, should not simply explain these problems away. Francis can and should be defended; William Doino has done a notable job of it here. Still, there are unclear statements. And half-expressed thoughts. It’s not “bad translations.” Similar controversies have arisen in the Italian press. And there are many people, as a result, who think the Church has already changed teachings on homosexuality, abortion, divorce, and the usual modern litany.

They’re wrong, of course, wildly so. But it’s useful to ask why, especially since the press is acting as a megaphone for them. A gay man sent a letter to the Post in response to this article, saying he’s attending Mass again after twenty-five years away. That’s all to the good, but he may be surprised by what he hears there. It’s not  “criticizing the pope,” for instance, to point out: “When NARAL sends you a thank-you note, it’s clear something got miscommunicated.” Several bishops, as we know, have had to put out statements informing people that Church teaching has not changed.

Francis will get better at handling all this as he grows more familiar with the full range of his responsibilities as pope. As I wrote here, he ultimately came out on top in the Repubblica interview. But the modern media – in which our words appear and get dissected within moments, rarely with calm thought – present a unique challenge for anyone who wants to communicate outside well-worn paths. And given the religious prejudices of most reporters, that’s a problem that can only be managed, not entirely solved.


Robert Royal
 is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is 
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (18)Add Comment
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written by Jim Soriano, October 18, 2013
One gets the impression that secular journalists reporting on Church teaching tend to approach the story from a kind of a Washington think-tank perspective, in which the teachings are seen as "policies" and a new pope as a new administration. In Washington new administrations change old policies, so why should that not also apply to the Vatican?
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, October 19, 2013
It's all about creating division, discord and dissent. This (the media) is none other than Satan's work. The media promotes death and lies. If they were of Christ, it would be about unity and truth. The only explanation for what appeared in the Washington Post is that we know the real source of its reporting (at least I hope we do).
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written by Ray Hunkins, October 19, 2013
Perceptive....and reassuring. Thank you Dr. Royal, I needed that.
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written by Lawrence Hall, October 19, 2013

God bless Mrs. Warren, "and make perpetual Light to shine upon her.
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written by Lawrence Hall, October 19, 2013
One hopes the Pope's advisors won't encourage him to yuck it up at the annual Al Smith Dinner or on Letterman.
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written by Jack,CT, October 19, 2013
Dear Mr Royal,
The reality is Pope Francis
does have a tendancy to say less than
tempered remarks and that is not for you
or any of us to defend or otherwise.
I feel we have been blessed with our
Pope long enough to see he certainly has
a more liberal slant then previous popes.
I would guess this is a bit upsetting
to conservative people but we all have

an oblgation to trust our Holy Father.
Truth is no matter who,there are always
critics!

Thanks as always for
a wonderful and
civalized article
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written by Matt, October 19, 2013
There is a sense of denial going on in the Catholic blogosphere which mirrors that within my own extended family.

Pope Francis' comments are not due to his amateur status as Pope. Let us not patronize the man as he was not pulled out of a hermit's cave to be Pope. He has interfaced with the media on church matters for decades - not days. The weight of his words may not have been global but for many years they spanned an entire continent.

He tells the atheistic world one moment that each individual, following his own conscience of what is good and evil, is good enough for salvation and then turns around and preaches a homily to the faithful that the conscience must be well-formed to obtain salvation.

Pope Francis is the embodiment of the Hermeneutic of Discontinuity; he is a Pope that will propagate the "Spirit of VII" like no other.
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written by pgk, October 19, 2013
Matt - the pope didn't say that merely following one's conscience is good enough for salvation. He said: "Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place." Which is true, and in accord with the catechism, which says: "A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience." Obviously there is more to say, but as St. Paul wrote, "I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it."
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written by Blake Helgoth, October 19, 2013
Here's a thought, maybe, just maybe the Holy Father doesn't give a rat's behind about how his words will or will not be portrayed in the media. Maybe he cares more about communicating well with the people to whom he is actually speaking. Maybe his experience with the media,seeing how it constantly twisted his own words and those of previous popes,has taught him that trying to control what the press reports is a fruitless exercise. Maybe he has decided that he isn't going to let bureaucracy, protocol and the media interfere with his mission. Maybe substance is more important to his than image. I know, hard for moderns to comprehend.
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written by Nathan Wilson, October 19, 2013
Papa Francis is a very dangerous Pope unless he achieves clarity in his communication. I know that the circle can be squared in an orthodox fashion on all the "radical" things he is reported to have said. However, it requires a knowledge of the faith well beyond that of even the above average Catholic. His ruminations regarding the role of conscience are an excellent example.
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written by Rich in MN, October 19, 2013
"A much bigger problem lies at the nexus of ignorance and prejudice."

That is a great line. I would add one more element to the mix: "Retail Darwinism." News agencies are like any other business organism: they survive by growing and reproducing, and their food is money, and their advertisers bring them their food, and their readers bring them their advertisers who bring them their food.

The creation of the Internet was like a great catastrophic tsunami that wiped out much of the financial food supply for virtually all of these vibrant news organizations. In the survival panic, many of them drifted from the standards of Edward R Morrow and Walter Cronkite over to the standards of TMZ, Deadspin, and Jerry Springer. There is an insightful line from the musical "My Fair Lady" (I am not sure if it is in Shaw's original "Pygmalion") in which Henry Higgins, in disgust, asks Alfred P Doolittle if he has no morals. Doolittle's all too (fallenly) human reply is, "No, Govn'r, I cannot afford them."

I suspect that many shocking "Cliff Hanger" headlines and "spun" stories are products of our survival instinct gone awry. In another great line, this time from the 1970s TV Show "Kung Fu," we have traded our souls for a bowlful of rice.
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written by Carlos Caso-Rosendi, October 19, 2013
My dear friend, the WaPo has been useful to Catholics around Holy Week when it becomes oh so handy for wrapping our only source of animal protein during that season. Other than that it is a good example of a has been. Soon you will have more readership than them. What a waste of good tree pulp that WaPo is. Pray for them and gain on grace. Where they are going there are no newspapers for paper ignites before the lies can be read.
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written by Marek, October 19, 2013
Mr. Royal. Your original column was lamenting the fact that Pope Francis is not communicating clearly enough, that he is easily misunderstood.

Isn't it interesting then, that in this article you confirm having same problem? In your own words:
"You can’t be surprised when your words are distorted by the press, taken out of context, even made to do backflips into positions opposite to the ones you hold, especially when it comes to Catholicism."

Well, if even yours, carefully worded and well thought out article can be distorted beyond recognition, is it then worth being that careful? Isn't it then justification of Francis' approach to communication?
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written by william manley, October 19, 2013
The Pope's words are making sense to millions of Catholics who embrace his sense of compassion. It is only in conservative circles that the Pope's words do not mean what they say. How telling. I think Jesus had the same problem with the scribes and Pharisees.
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written by Robert Royal, October 19, 2013
Marek: I appreciate your point, and it has been made by others in this discussion also. In fact, I mentioned that very phenomenon in this column. The difference is that even when Francis has a chance to revise and clarify as in the Civilta Cattolica and the Repubblica articles -- where he's not simply being characterized by third parties -- he's left things unclear. I could even sympathize with Mr. Manley's point, too, IF we knew what the pope was saying at certain points. It's not only "conservatives" who have trouble figuring this out. As I mentioned in this column, there are many people who think he's already changed teaching on abortion, homosexuality, marriage, etc. "What the words mean," I expect, will only become clear when we see action, not before. I repeat what I said in the article: several bishops have had to make statements clarifying the pope's words. There's a problem here however you look at it.
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written by Matt, October 20, 2013
pgk - Your quote is correct. What I wrote, unquoted, is what the world heard. The Pope is aware of this and I await his public clarification rather then some lower level curia official. This ambiguity is the trademark of the "Spirit of Vatican II"
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written by Avery Tödesulh, October 20, 2013
One has to note, as Dr. Royal hinted at in his post, that this sort of press twisting occurred far less often with John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They were far more concerned to say things clearly than is Pope Francis. He feels that if he just speaks with emotion and largesse, he will be treated generously by the secular press. That's either naïveté or incompetence. If the former, he will learn to be more like his two predecessors, but if the latter, then the rule of Domina Stultitiae begins ...

Many well-meaning, but careless prelates of the 70s and 80s spoke as Pope Francis does now. All happy and clappy, they led us into a morass of theological and doctrinal confusion which it took the last two Popes twenty years to straighten out.
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written by Hen, October 21, 2013
One of the traits a good pastor replacing another good pastor is sensitivity to the simpler practices and statements made by the retiring pastor, especially early on. We may expect this sensitivity of our bishops and popes too, no matter how old or educated they are. The same respect needed of us is needed of them.

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